Steven Moffat’s second season running Doctor Who shared one major characteristic with Russell T. Davies’ second season: Both were not as good as their first seasons. Moffat is overall a much stronger writer than Davies and his story arcs have been more interesting (far fewer Daleks, for one thing), but this season felt like he bit off more than he could chew, setting up a complicated set of plot threads, but the payoff has so far been rather disappointing.
Here’s my ranking of this season’s episodes from favorite to least:
- The Doctor’s Wife (written by Neil Gaiman)
- The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon (Steven Moffat)
- The Girl Who Waited (Tom MacRae)
- The Wedding of River Song (Moffat)
- A Good Man Goes to War (Moffat)
- The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People (Matthew Graham)
- Closing Time (Gareth Roberts)
- Let’s Kill Hitler (Moffat)
- The Curse of the Black Spot (Stephen Thompson)
- The God Complex (Toby Whithouse)
- Night Terrors (Mark Gatiss)
The season’s best episode was actually outside of the main arc as well as not being written by Moffat, that being Neil Gaiman’s “The Doctor’s Wife”. Given all the River Song shenanigans during Moffat’s reign, I – like I’m sure almost everyone else – expected this would be a key story in the arc, but in fact Gaiman takes the story in a different direction, anthropomorphizing the Doctor’s relationship with the TARDIS. It was a very Gaiman-esque story, with atmosphere and horror and some sweet moments, as well as a lot of tantalizing bits for long-time Time Lord fans. Actually the story’s setting is the sort of thing that a whole season of episodes could spring from, but I doubt it will ever come up again. But that’s okay. The only drawback to the episode was the rather cheap and obvious manipulation of time used to terrorize Amy and Rory.
I previously reviewed “The Impossible Astronaut” and “Day of the Moon”, which were pretty good, but are a good example of the problem with the season’s arc: It’s terribly elliptical, and is full of an assortment of weirdness for weirdness’ sake. Why an astronaut suit? Why isn’t the Silence just cleaning up if they have these elaborate electrical powers and are nearly-invisible? Since when can the TARDIS turn invisible? Still, the set-up for the season’s big question – is the Doctor going to die, and if not (since he clearly isn’t), how’s he going to get out of it? – is pretty well done, there are plenty of suspenseful moments, and the Doctor’s solution to the Silence in the second part is rather clever.
Speaking of “cheap and obvious manipulation of time” as I did above, “The Girl Who Waited” was about as un-subtle an episode as one can imagine, taking the original meeting of the Doctor and Amy to its logical extreme via the perils of time travel, and in a ridiculously contrived environment. Yet it still works pretty well, mainly because of Karen Gillan’s portrayal of the two Amys, and the Doctor’s decision at the climax of the episode.
As you can see, I’m already not hugely enamored of the season already. The season’s finale, “The Wedding of River Song”, concerns, well, its title, and also how the Doctor gets out of it. I felt pretty foolish for not seeing it sooner, considering the solution to the problem was telegraphed several episodes earlier, not to mention early in this episode itself. It’s reasonably satisfying, and the Doctor using the trick of hiding in “a Doctor suit” (a good line) to fall “off the grid” so the Silence doesn’t keep hunting him is pretty clever. But the climax felt, well, anticlimactic, very different from the explosive Season Five climax.
The mid-season arc stories, “A Good Man Goes to War” and “Let’s Kill Hitler” were rather unsatisfying. “Good Man” continues the rather silly trend of the Doctor being this universally-known figure, loved by many and hated by many more, which just completely clashes with my concept of the character as this lone, stealth figure doing good deeds under everyone’s radar across the universe. “Wedding” suggests that exactly this has become a problem for the Doctor, but Moffat never really establishes how the Doctor’s status quo changed in this way, so it just feels awkward and uncharacteristic for the series. “Let’s Kill Hitler” focuses on the mystery of River, basically explaining what we’d all guessed earlier when we learned that Amy was pregnant. I found this fairly unsatisfying, especially since it plays way too fast-and-loose with the regeneration rules for my taste. (Heck, Moffat undercuts any reasonable explanation for why River would have been able to regenerated by having her gestate outside of the TARDIS – while Amy is a captive of the Silence – though really no explanation would have satisfied me. It’s another “weirdness for weirdness’ sake” plot device.)
The other stories were one-off tales. “Closing Time” is the best of these, highlighting the Doctor’s fatalistic last years prior to the season ender; Craig from “The Lodger” shows up and the pair basically have a buddy episode, which is quite a bit of fun other than the cliched deployment of the Cybermen as the big threat. “The Curse of the Black Spot”, “The God Complex” and “Night Terrors” are all fairly generic horror yarns, all fairly forgettable; “Spot” gets the nod as the best of the three for its less ridiculous explanation for its mysterious goings-on.
The Season Story Arc:
As I said earlier, I think Moffat bit off more than he could chew in the complicated story arc of this season.
The Silence are a fairly creepy adversary, but they’re also basically a cipher. Considering that we’ve never heard of them, nor has the Doctor, one wonder how long they’ve been around and, more importantly, what it is they’re trying to accomplish. Are they trying to conquer the universe? If so, then their attack on the TARDIS in Season Five was a disastrously bad choice, as it nearly destroyed the universe. Are they trying to destroy the universe, then? If so, why? Are they just trying to kill the Doctor? If so, why? They seem to fanatic to simply be hired guns. Or do they have some other goal, and if so, what, and why do they fear the Doctor so much? This season really didn’t make any progress in exploring any of this. Presumably these elements are what Season Seven will be all about – they’ll end up a pretty weak and forgettable foe if not.
I’ve been conflicted about River Song as a character (though not about Alex Kingston as an actress, who pretty much steals any scene she’s in; ah, if only she’d been able to appear opposite Christopher Eccleston!). For a while she was being deployed in a strict “every time the Doctor meets her occurs for her before the last time we saw them meet” manner, which was a nifty plot device, but one I never really embraced because if both of them can time travel, then why do they have to stick to that pattern? But as a storytelling conceit I was willing to accept it. But the pattern goes completely off the rails here, as the Doctor meets her as an infant (at the end of “Good Man”), and then as (effectively) a teenager (in “Hitler”), and then at two different points in “Astronaut”, and then I gave up trying to untangle their timelines, since it’s clearly no longer important. If Moffat has been planning to build up to a grand “this is the first time River meets the Doctor, and the last time he meets her” scene, he’s already short-circuited the impact of that episode this season. Too bad, since such a scene could be quite cool.
(On the other hand, it would be equally impressive – and maybe have greater impact – if the Doctor manages to reincarnate her from her computer representation back in Season Four’s “Forest of the Dead”. But I digress.)
I thought the notion of the Silence appropriating River’s life to make her a weapon against the Doctor was a pretty nifty idea, although I didn’t understand how she was able to escape their control and short-circuit their plans. It also leaves one big questions about what we know about River: If the Doctor wasn’t killed, why was she imprisoned? How is she able to keep walking out of her prison? What authority imprisoned her? If the Doctor was killed in 2010, but shows up at some earlier time later in his own timeline, wouldn’t that conclusively exonerate her before she’s even imprisoned? For that matter, River seems able to time travel on her own, but we don’t know how. Her timeline is a mess, and I don’t see how Moffat can reconcile it all other than wiping everything away through some deus ex machina. I suspect he has no intention of trying. Maybe he has some notes which make everything fit together, but from the material on film, I can’t see how.
But okay, I admit I’m intrigued and amused by the metatextual mystery set up at the end of “River”, where the first question (of the TV series) will finally be asked: “Doctor who?” Does Moffat have the guts to actually dive into the Doctor’s earliest life and give us some insight into his character that we haven’t been given? It’s never been the purpose of the series to explain everything about the character, and some of that mystery has always been an underpinning of the show, but explaining some of it, especially in a manner that could be built on at some unspecified point in the future, would be very cool, and something that’s rarely been done. (Honestly, what must it have been like for the – far fewer – fans back in 1969 when the Time Lords were introduced? Could Moffat pull off a revelation anywhere near that level? I sure hope he tries.)
So in sum, the season was often interesting, but ultimately disappointing. In a way, it sums up Moffat’s style of writing: Many bits of it don’t make sense, but it’s emotionally satisfying. “The Girl in the Fireplace” from Season Two fits this description to a T, but at his best (“The Doctor Dances”, or “Forest of the Dead”) Moffat manages to overcome his plotting difficulties. But the whole-season arcs of his first two seasons don’t, and given that they rely on intricate plotting, they end up not being more than the sum of their parts. I think Moffat needs to simplify things a bit, and hopefully now that some of the mysteries behind River and the Silence have been revealed, the third act of the Matt Smith Doctor will hang together better than does the second.